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Our family vacations tend toward the more laid back. We are a sit-on-the-beach and relax kind of family rather than a sightseeing clan. Our trip to Hawaii was no exception. Pre-trip we did outline some cool things to see and do, but our intention was to Live Like A Local for three weeks in the paradise that is Hawaii. The only big activity that we planned was driving the Road to Hana.
Years ago, I had heard about the Road to Hana from my friend Susan, who drove it with small kids in tow. From her description, I had pictured it as a windy road amidst waterfalls and the canopies of the rainforest.
And it is.
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The Road To Hana
If you have never been, the Road to Hana is exactly that, a 64-mile, two-lane road that connects the western, more populated part of Maui to the eastern, more remote part of the island. This road is narrow, with 600 hairpin turns and 54 bridges, many of them only wide enough for one car at a time. This scenic drive takes you along the north coast of Maui, past many waterfalls and through the tropical rainforest.
The road begins around the town of Paia, symbolically at Mile Marker (MM) 0 when Highway 36 becomes Highway 360. Confusingly the larger town on the east side, Hana is not actually the end of the road. It is past Hana that the paved road does literally end and only those with a four-wheel vehicle can proceed to circumnavigate the island. It is also confusing because around MM 50, the highway changes its name from Highway 360 to Highway 31, and the Mile Marker numbers start decreasing. Our intention was to make it all the way to the Oheo Gulch (Seven Sacred Pools) but we ran out of daylight!
Hawaii Pro-Tip: Check with your rental company, most do not allow their cars to be driven on unpaved roads, even SUVs
Along the road are dozens of natural, and man-made attractions. All navigation is done by noting the Mile Marker (MM) the stop is at or near. For our trip, I spent days reading articles and making notes of the different attractions we might be interested in seeing. I also consulted Fodor’s Hawaii (I highly recommend this guidebook).
The night before we left, I organized my research, wrote out a list in numerical MM order, of all of the stops that sounded interesting. As I learned from my research and experience, if you pass a place you were hoping to stop, it is impossible to turn around, so its good to be prepared!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Many folks swear by CDs or apps that you can play while driving the Road to Hana. I knew my children would not be interested in listening to a guide, so we did not utilize an audio tour. However, this would be a good option if I was just with my spouse or traveling with older kids. I am sure we would have learned a lot more about what we were seeing if we had an a companion audio component.
- Before heading out, I read conflicting advice on the availability of food along the Road to Hana. Let’s just say there is no Starbucks or Mickey D’s, but we made several stops that had food concessions. There are also several restaurants in the town of Hana. We did (as we always do when we get in the car) bring plenty of snacks and drinks. Nobody starved.
- However, one amenity that is not plentiful along the Road to Hana is gas stations. We filled up in Paia, and I strongly recommend doing so. Make sure you have enough fuel to make it out and back. We learned about the lack of fuel stations on the islands during our trip to Mauna Kea, but I’ll save that story for another post.
- We had hoped to swim in a waterfall and at the black sand beach at Wainapanapa State Park, so we all wore swimsuits under our clothes. We also had four towels easily accessible in the trunk. I highly recommend doing this!
- Lastly, if you can, plan to stay the night on the east side of the island. This was the one piece of advice my friend had given me. Staying in Hana was probably one of the highlights of my travel career. It also afforded us the luxury of not having to get started super early in the morning, and we had all day to explore the sites. I could not imagine having to drive back down this super-windy road in the dark. I definitely did not see street lamps!
Road to Hana Itinerary
Here is my review of the sites and attractions that we stopped at. We left Kihei around 9:30, checked out of our VRBO, and loaded up our rental sedan with all of our suitcases. We stopped in Paia for gas and then spent all day driving, getting to Hana in time for dinner. Here are my reviews, in Mile Marker (MM) order.
MM2- Twin Falls. In my research, this seemed like the must stop spot on the Road to Hana. We excitedly pulled over at our first destination and were able to find a space in the parking lot. We checked out the fruit stand and sampled a cup of sugar cane juice. Although a fun novelty to be drinking sugar cane juice, no one actually liked this drink! We all took sips and then tossed it! At least we tried.
This stop was very disappointing and I would recommend that if you have little kids, you bypass this one altogether. There will be plenty of other places to see waterfalls – PLENTY. To actually see anything good, you had to hike up a long trail, which our kids did not have the stamina for. It was also very buggy here.
MM6- Huelo Lookout. Stopping here provides you with a scenic overlook as well as a food stop. The fruit stand offered local fruits and fresh smoothies. If you go a few feet down the path, there is a girl in a cart making waffles and acai bowls. On the way out to Hana, we sampled some smoothies. On the way back the following day, I had an acai bowl for breakfast, which was quite delicious and enough food for about 5 people!
MM9/10- Waikamoi Vantage Point. On a curve between mile markers 9 and 10, there is a little parking lot on the island side of the road. You can walk up to higher elevation and get some nice views of the water. On our stop here little man was fascinated with someone flying a drone. There were hiking trails to go further up, but we decided to skip those.
MM16/17- Keane Peninsula and Aunty Sandy’s. This was one of our favorite stops along the Road to Hana. About halfway between mile markers 16 and 17 there is a turn off which puts you on a small road heading toward the water. Look for the green sign for the Keane Peninsula. Here you will find a few houses and Aunty Sandy’s banana bread/shave ice/lunch spot.
We stopped here right around lunchtime and hubby and I had an actual meal (veggie burger and pork sandwich) and the kids each had a shave ice. Looking back, they must have heavily snacked in the car to be allowed a shave ice lunch, but again, live like the locals. Before we departed, we went to buy a loaf of their world famous banana bread, only to be told it was still baking and that it would be twenty minutes until the next batch was ready.
So we kept going to the end of the small road and came across a little park. This park had clean restrooms (take note, very important on the Road to Hana!), tide pools, and rocks that we all climbed on, watching the ocean spray up at us. Other families were having a picnic here, and this would definitely be a great spot to do so.
After the park, we were able to stop again at Aunty Sandy’s and get a loaf of the famous banana bread. It came warm, right out of the oven and it was delicious! It also made a great breakfast the following morning.
MM 17.3 Halfway to Hana. This milestone is marked by a little convenience store. On the way out, we just passed it by. The next morning, on the way back to Paia, I stopped here to get a coffee and some fresh fruit. This would be a good food stop if you missed the turn off for Aunty Sandy’s.
MM 19- Waikani Falls. When you drive up, just past MM 19, you will find illegally parked cars along the mountain side right before you cross a one-lane bridge. This is the spot to see, and swim, in a gorgeous 70-foot waterfall. We got out of the car to see the falls and try to figure out how to descend underneath to swim. After looking around and consulting with others who were wondering the same, we realized you had to make quite a steep (and dangerous looking) hike to get in the water. There were plenty of people down there, and we thought about it, until a couple came by and alerted us to another, easier to access waterfall three miles further down.
MM 22-Puaa Kaa State Wayside Park. Here is where we got to swim in a waterfall! To access the falls, you still had to tread carefully and cross the stream over some slippery rocks, but we all managed to make it to the base of the waterfall. The water was really cold! I swam out, but got nervous when it got deep- you never know what kind of critters might be in there!
Swimming here was truly a highlight of the trip and I definitely recommend seeking out this stop. There is an actual parking lot here, and restroom facilities as well. Of course this stop was not on my original “itinerary” but we heard about it from a fellow traveler – a good reminder to approach this journey with an open mind and flexibility!
MM 32 – Wainapanapa State Park. This is a large state park that offers campgrounds, a black sand beach and beautiful views. We arrived here late in the day and spent about an hour in the tunnels, on the beach, and in the water. The beach was beautiful and it was the first black sand beach we visited in Hawaii. The sand was more like black rocks. All four of us had a lot of fun crashing in the big waves. This would be a great spot to boogey board.
We did not stay at Wainapanapa as long as we would have liked, but in August the Hawaiian sun sets around 7pm, and we wanted to eat dinner and have time to find our rental house in the daylight hours.
MM34/35- Hana Ranch House. This was our dinner stop. The consensus is that the town of Hana is situated at mile marker 34, and at this point there were a few restaurants. The Hana Ranch House seemed to be affiliated with the Travaasa hotel, as it is situated across the street.
This restaurant offered regular American fare, burgers, chicken, pasta, seafood, and also had a full bar. There was a kid’s menu, vegetarian options, and fast service, so it suited our needs perfectly. A little overpriced, even for Hawaii, but in this remote area if you want to go out to eat, the options are limited.
Staying the Night in Hana
At the advice of friends, we decided to stay the night in Hana. This was our last night on the island of Maui. We checked out of our rental in Kihei, taking all of our luggage with us. The following day we drove back to the airport to catch our flight to the Big Island.
Overnight accommodations in and around Hana are limited. One option is to rent a cabin at Wai’anapanapa State Park. The price is right at $90 per night (cheaper for Hawaii residents), but you have to bring your own linens so that was a logistical deal breaker for us. There is one hotel, the Travaasa but its super fancy, and super expensive (I was quoted $650 a night for the time of our stay). When I looked on Airbnb, I only found two house rentals that would have suited our needs. Ultimately I decided to book a night at Mack’s Shack in Hana.
Mack’s Shack is a one-bedroom, solar powered, Hawaiian plantation home located between MM 27 and 28. To get there, you had to ascend a steep gravel hill, driving amongst mooing cows! The house has a beautiful wrap around porch and a ton of windows and natural light. Staying here we felt so isolated from the outside world. We slept with the windows open, which provided a cool breeze, and we listened to animal sounds all night.
The house is a small one bedroom dwelling. To sleep four, one person had to sleep on the couch and one on an air bed. The house was also very buggy, although that is to be expected in a tropical rainforest. For me, it was a great place to hang our heads for one night, but not somewhere I would want to stay for a longer duration (mainly because of the bugs). I should add though, that there was Wi-Fi and satellite TV. So after a long day of exploring nature, we were able to come home and watch the women’s gymnastic finals from the Rio Olympics. A great mesh of old world charm and modern conveniences!
Driving the Road to Hana was a highlight of the whole Hawaii trip. It was such an unparalleled experience for us. Waking up in East Maui, I felt like I was at the end of the world! Our kids did get a little bored in the car, but luckily no one got carsick! We did have barf bags just in case. And I will admit, scenic drives can be a more adult oriented activity, but the kids loved seeing the waterfalls, the rainbow eucalyptus trees and swimming at the black sand beach and in a waterfall.
Sounds incredible, right?
Have you driven the Road to Hana? What was your trip like? What stops should we be sure to include next time?
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